Why is the Drinking Age 21?

By | October 20, 2013

The U.S. is only one of three developed nations who have set their drinking age over 18. You might ask, “Why do we bother? Why 21?” After all, the other two countries–Japan and Iceland–only set theirs at 20. There are only three other nations that set theirs as high as 21: Indonesia, Mongolia, and Palau. The rest either outlaw drinking entirely (for religious reasons) or set their legal limit at 18 or less. If so many other countries allow their youths to drink alcohol at 18 or younger, why do we set our limit at 21 years of age?

First, let’s take a moment to see how this all got started. By executive order, President Ronald Reagan established a commission to research drunk driving in 1982. One of many results of that research was a recommendation to legally set the drinking age at 21. The result was the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This legislation does not set a legal age for drinking in the U.S. Instead, the law “recommends” states enact their drinking age laws at 21 and penalizes states that do not comply with withholding a portion of their federal highway funding. So, the federal law is a carrot-and-stick deal, where the powers that be tout the “lives saved” as their carrot and beat any reluctant states with the stick of lost funding.

But why 21? According to MADD, youths react to alcohol differently than adults do. They get drunk faster and have more trouble knowing when to stop. The CDC says that research indicates a 16% reduction in motor vehicle crashes with underage drivers in states that set their drinking at 21. But does this prove that 21 is the way to go?

If we go back to President Reagan’s research commission, we’ll find that setting 21 as the age young people can start drinking legally was only one of the 39 recommendations they made. Many of these recommendations were implemented, including raising awareness, tougher DUI laws, mandatory sentencing for offenders, and mandatory seat belt usage, among others. Some people theorize that the combined effect has reduced drunk driving fatalities, not any single measure.

This theory is supported by current research that suggests that the higher drinking age postpones alcohol-related fatalities, instead of eliminating them. Youths who are 21, 22, and 23 years old die in higher proportions, offsetting the “lives saved” in the 16, 17, and 18 years old categories. Poor enforcement also takes its toll in lives lost. Teenagers still obtain access to alcohol. Some drink themselves to death by binging, literally poisoning themselves with alcohol. Others drink and drive, killing or harming themselves or others or both. Still others do things they would never do sober that endanger their lives.

So it could be argued that making young people wait until they’re 21 to start drinking saves lives, and it could be argued that other efforts are more effective. It’s hard to be sure. One thing you can take away from all of this is that responsible drinking is a necessity whatever age you happen to be. Drinking and driving is dangerous whether you’re 16, 21, 37 or 94. Binge drinking is dangerous, too, no matter how old you are. Wait to drink–there really is no good reason to rush! If you drink, drink responsibly every time.